Durban greenwash

Print edition : January 13, 2012

The Durban Platform postpones climate actions to 2020, beyond which global emissions must not rise if the world is to avert irreversible climate change.

SUCH is the disconnect between Durban climate conference realities and the greenwash-style spin put on them by the Indian government and its uncritical supporters in the bubble-world of non-governmental organisations and the media that one is left speechless. Going by media reports, a firm India forced a climate breakthrough and took centre stage as a force to reckon with and regained its position as the leader and moral voice of the developing world, forcing the European Union and the United States to address its demands. The principle of equity found its place back on the table and life was infused into the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012, when its first phase ends.

At Durban, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to negotiate a new global regime with binding commitments on all, unlike in the past when these were limited to the industrialised northern countries. According to the spin doctors, The decision came after the E.U. was forced to go into a huddle with India and address its concerns even as the developing world, including China, backed India on its demand for an equitable future deal.

The spin doctors approvingly quoted Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan: After intense negotiations, we got the extension of Kyoto Protocol... and restored equity as a central dimension of the debate. We firmly reiterated the right of India and other developing countries to their growth under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities [CBDR]....

Now consider the facts. The reiteration finds no reflection in the conference outcome. The key resolution to launch the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action to develop a new climate agreement by 2015 with legal commitments for all states, to be implemented from 2020 onwards, does not even mention equity or CBDR.

This elision was no aberration. The northern countries were emphatic that they wanted to move to an altogether different regime from the past order defined by the original 1992 climate convention, the Kyoto Protocol (effective 2005) and the Bali Action Plan, or BAP (2007), which further explicated CBDR by erecting a firewall between the North's climate obligations and the South's voluntary actions, which the North must support. Any mention of CBDR would be qualified by a statement mandating its interpretation based on contemporary economic realities, including recent North-to-South power shifts and the emergence of China and India as major drivers of global growth and among the world's current top five greenhouse gas emitters. This would have opened a Pandora's box.

At Durban, the Kyoto Protocol did not get its second commitment period (CP2), or legally effective phase beyond 2012. The decision was postponed to the next climate conference, without clarity on the North's commitments to higher ambition or equity. Such commitments seem highly unlikely given the past record and the Great Recession. Pablo Solon, Bolivia's former lead negotiator and a formidable critic of the North's manipulative tactics, said the arrangement would turn the Kyoto Protocol into a soulless zombie until it is replaced by a new agreement that will be even weaker. Solon was proved dead right at both Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010).

At Durban, the developing countries did not forge new bonds of unity or solidarity, with emerging India becoming their moral voice. They got demoralised, divided and further split, with a majority, especially the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the least developed countries (LDCs), allying with the E.U. Some of them expressed their resentment at the insistence of the two-year-old BASIC (Brazil, South Africa, India, China) grouping on hiding behind the rest of the (non-emerging) South and harping on the right to develop. While they develop, we die, Grenada's ambassador said.

Whether such resentment is justified or not is beside the point. India failed to anticipate or quell it. The developing country bloc, G-77+China, long splintered into subgroups, found itself in utter disarray. Indian negotiators, preoccupied with evading a legally binding commitment in keeping with their mandate, painted themselves into a corner and failed to address the concerns of small, vulnerable southern countries or to maintain BASIC's coherence. More crucially, they accepted a text which is silent on equity and the polluter pays principle.

Jayanthi Natarajan may go on claiming that the Durban Platform's decision to negotiate a protocol, another legal instrument, or an agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention applicable to all does not imply that India has to take binding commitments to reduce its emissions in absolute terms in 2020. She may read the convention's principles into the text and pretend that it does not explicitly mention emissions cuts, only the highest possible mitigation efforts by all parties; and hence India's voluntary offer to reduce the emissions intensity of its economy by 20-25 per cent by 2020 is adequately compatible with it. However, the text's references to levels of ambition and closure of the ambition gap, the interpretation put on it by India's own partners in BASIC and, above all, Durban's political context belie this fanciful Panglossian interpretation.

The context was duplicitously set by the E.U. when it shifted from unconditional support for a Kyoto CP2 some weeks ago to making support contingent upon an agreement at Durban to negotiate by 2015 an altogether new climate deal with binding commitments for all major economies, not just developed northern countries.

The E.U. cynically exploited the circumstance that the South had made a second commitment period the touchstone of success at Durban and began systematically to erode the principles of equity and CBDR. In this, it was joined by the U.S., which has always been hostile to the idea of top-down obligations on the North based on science and equity and in favour of an arbitrary pledge and review approach in which nations make emissions-reduction promises unrelated to their contribution to climate change.

The U.S. probably overcame its long-known distaste for binding obligations for itself only because it saw the final stages of the Durban talks as the last chance to draw China into the binding obligations net. So a de facto alliance emerged between the E.U. and the U.S., in which India's insertion of the awkward phrase agreed outcome with legal force under the Convention suited the latter.

The U.S. also led the North's successful attack on the BAP, which provides a road map for a fair, ambitious and binding climate deal through a Working Group on Long-Term Cooperative Action. Durban effectively killed BAP. The Bali process and the Working Group will be terminated in 2012, and a new process will begin, with a considerable dilution, if not de facto abandonment, of North-South differentiation. So much for equity!

Not a good beginning

Was the Durban outcome at least a good beginning, if not the best possible result, as some apologists of the Indian government plead? Certainly not, for at least three powerful reasons. First, it postpones all significant climate action, in particular drastic emissions reductions by the North, to 2020 and beyond. But global emissions must peak by 2020 if the world is to avert irreversible and catastrophic climate change, with global warming way, way beyond the 1.5-2 C that the earth can tolerate. The Durban arrangements will probably raise global warming to 4 C, with unspeakable consequences for humankind, including Indians who comprise a vulnerable one-sixth of it. African climate activists have called it a death sentence for Africa.

Second, the outcome prolongs at least until 2020 many grossly unjust anomalies in the post-Copenhagen climate order, including much higher emissions-reduction pledges by the South than the North. This inverts the elementary ethical principle that those most responsible for climate change should take the lead and accept higher obligations than those with a marginal contribution to it. The loopholes in the North's pledges, besides their paltriness, will continue.

Third, the might is right norm will prevail in the UNFCCC process, further vitiating the negotiations and wiping out past gains for the sake of expediency and the narrow short-term self-interests of a few powerful states. The process began some time ago, with Copenhagen as its low point, where India too acted deplorably. It will now descend to even more abysmal levels.

We need to situate this in the history of what an extremely perceptive observer (Susan George) has called the most important negotiations ever undertaken in the history of humankind, which began at Rio de Janeiro in 1992. These produced some significant gains and many hopes until 2007. Since then, things have gone downhill, with setback after setback since Copenhagen and further weakening of the will of the North's leadership, pusillanimous as it is in the face of corporate power, to fight climate change sincerely by giving up its fossil-fuel addiction. This only highlights the inseparable links between climate change and neoliberal economic policies and the global developmental crisis that these aggravate, with terrible implications for the South's poor and the North's vulnerable people.

Was another, better, outcome possible? At the risk of being branded unrealistic, I believe India could have better prepared for Durban with coalition-building focussed on the AOSIS and the LDCs, by offering them generous need-based financial and technological assistance, especially in climate change adaptation, and also by strengthening G-77. It could then have pressed the E.U. hard for supporting a Kyoto CP2. This could have isolated northern recalcitrants and become a game-changer. But that would have needed both policy independence and imaginative strategising, now scarce here.

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